July 3, 2009

Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi on the Divine Will

A Conversation With Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi On How One Should Recognize the Will of God

We observed that the Elder never embarked on anything without first praying. We would ask him about something in the future or for the next day, and his reply was that he would tell us tomorrow. He would do this so that he could pray first.

Our desire focused on knowledge of the divine will: how should one recognise the divine will? He would say, 'Are you asking about this, boys, when it is the most basic thing?' We would encourage him with increased curiosity, 'But, Elder, isn't God's will known in general terms through the Scriptures and the whole of divine revelation? Since everything in our life is regulated, what other question should we monks have?’ And the Elder replied, 'May God give you "understanding in every­thing" (2 Tim. 2:7). St Nilus the Calabrian prayed that he might be granted "to think and speak according to the divine will". In general terms, to do good and every other commandment is the will of God, but the detail which governs it is unknown. "For who has known the mind of the Lord?" (Rom. 11:34); and again, "the judge­ments of the Lord are a great abyss" (Ps. 36:6). The di­vine will is not differentiated only by time, but also by place, persons and things, as also by quantity, manner and circumstance. And is that all? Man himself, when he changes his disposition, also changes the divine decision in many ways. So it is not enough to know the general ex­pression of the divine will; one needs to know the specific verdict on the subject in question, whether yes or no, and only thus is success assured. The chief aim of the divine will is the expression and manifestation of divine love, be­cause the driving force of all our actions is precisely the fullness of His love. If "whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom. 14:8), as St Paul says, then, however much the will we are seeking seems to be per­sonal to us or to someone close to us, its centre of gravity is the Divine Person, for whose sake "we live and move and have our being" (cf. Acts 17:28). Have you forgotten the Lord's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, "if it be pos­sible let it pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt!" (Mt. 26:39)? Any expression of obedience towards the venerable divine will that does not have love for Him as its basis risks remaining a human action - or, to put it better, a human failing. If, as St Paul says, we have to "subordinate every thought to obedience to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5) because "we are not our own" (1 Cor. 6:19), how is this to be implemented in the conscience of the person who gives his obedience if he does not know precisely what the divine will is for this circumstance? Besides, the ensuing divine blessing and grace, towards which we hasten, is revealed only in perfect obedience.

'So when you want to find out the will of God, abandon your own will completely together with every other thought or plan, and with great humility ask for this knowledge in prayer. And whatever takes shape or carries weight in your heart, do it, and it will be accord­ing to God's will. Those who have greater boldness and practice in praying for this will hear a clearer assurance within them, and will become more careful in their lives not to do anything without divine assurance.

'There is also another way of discovering the will of God which the Church uses generally, and that is advice through spiritual fathers or confessors. The great blessing of obedience which beneficently overshadows those who esteem it becomes for them knowledge where they are ignorant and protection and strength to carry out the advice or commandment, because God is revealed to those who are obedient in His character as a father. The perfection of obedience, as the consummate virtue, puts its followers on a level with the Son of God, who became "obedient... unto the cross" (Phil. 2:8). And as our Jesus was given all power (Mt. 28:18) and all the good pleasure of the Father, so the obedient are given assurance of the divine will and the grace to carry it out successfully and to the full.

‘Those who ask spiritual people in order to dis­cover the divine will should be aware of this point: the will of God is not revealed magically, nor does it hold a position of relativity, since it is not contained within the narrow confines of human reason. In His consummate goodness God condescends to human weakness and gives man sure knowledge. But man must first believe absolute­ly, and secondly humble himself by thirsting ardently for this assurance and by being disposed to carry it out. This is why he receives with faith and gratitude the first word of the spiritual father who is advising him. When, how­ever, these requirements of faith, obedience and humility do not co-exist - and it is a sign of this when someone objects or counters with other questions, or worst of all has a mind to keep asking for second opinions - then the will of God is hidden, like the sun behind a passing cloud. This is a subtle matter, and requires great care. Abba Mark says, "A man gives advice to his neighbour accord­ing to what he knows; but God works in the hearer ac­cording to his faith." An essential requirement in seek­ing the divine will is that the person who is asking should make himself receptive to this Revelation, because, as I have said before, the divine will with its transcendent character is not magically contained within positions or places or instruments, but is revealed only to those who are worthy of this divine condescension.’